Durango, uncorked

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Paul Tocco of Synergy Fine Wines and Eric Allen, co-owner of Wine Merchant, man their tables at the grand tasting tent, on Saturday at the First National Bank of Durango parking lot. Allen featured wines made from the grenache grape, including a rosé, the hot wine this spring season.

By Pamela Hasterok
Special To the Herald

It can smell like roses, pine needles or grilled meat. It can taste like lemons, wood or coffee. It’s always wine, of course, and it’s almost always a party in your mouth.

Wine has become the good-time girl of the adult-beverage industry, growing by leaps and bounds in the last decade. And why not? It’s fun, it’s tasty and it smells good.

Wine sellers, wine makers, restaurateurs and locals in search of more than your average street festival gathered last week for the Durango Wine Experience – a long weekend of drinking, tasting and learning about wine and its natural accompaniment, food.

To assuage any guilt about indulging in a three-day party, all the money raised from the event goes to United Way of Southwest Colorado.

“I like drinking for a good cause,” said Malia Durbano, a local writer sampling the crisp whites and platters of rich cheeses at the boutique Blu with her friend Victoria FittsMilgrim, who volunteered for the event.

You could take a class from a wine expert to learn about sparkling wine, try a three-course lunch to comprehend how to pair wine with Southwestern food or delve into that trendiest of grapes, grenache. You could hobnob with a master sommelier or a French-trained chef or just stroll from gallery to boutique trying different wines and surreptitiously eyeing the goods.

Or you could dispense with any pretense at all and just party hearty, chowing down on meat-heavy hors d’oeuvres from restaurants such as Ore House and Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen, snag a grilled vegetable from a platter the size of a Smart car from Carver Brewing Co. and suck down some premier wines from California, Italy, New Zealand and beyond.

So, you might ask, why throw a wine festival in Durango, Colo.?

“It’s to build wine knowledge and have a party, too,” said Chris Crowl, chef and co-owner of Cosmo Bar & Dining.

For Jay Fletcher, a master sommelier responsible for much of the wine knowledge imparted throughout the event, the party part was not to be ignored.

“I woke up this morning and it was like someone stuck a dead mouse in my throat,” he said, eliciting knowing twitters from attendees at his Saturday morning seminar detailing the different types of French wine.

As unlikely as it might seem, the fine wine industry in Colorado has flourished for years, says Fletcher, who has worked in the wine and food industry in Aspen for 35 years. Ski resorts such as Aspen, Vail and Telluride always catered to a wealthy clientele interested in the world’s best wines with newer travel destinations such as Durango coming on recently.

Furthermore, because it sits in the middle of the country, our state isn’t loyal to European wines, favored by East Coasters or California wines, preferred by those in the West. Basically, if you’re a resort, restaurant or wine shop, you can procure wines from all over the world – and you better, to keep your sophisticated customers happy.

Wine drinking has grown in even remote towns like Durango in part because of the farm-to-fork movement in which locally grown food and meat is heralded as tasting the best and being the healthiest for you. Wine is natural – grapes come from the earth just like any other fruit – it’s less filling than beer and less powerful than a cocktail.

And some intrepid farmers have begun growing wine grapes in Colorado, creating a booming but challenging industry that didn’t exist even 25 years ago. The state’s abundant sunshine, cool nights and low humidity create good growing conditions; its extremes like early frosts, wildfires and high winds cause problems.

As for the quality of Colorado wines, well, that’s still up for judgment. Some local wines such as Guy Drew (with a beautiful, floral viognier for $15) and Sutcliffe Vineyards (offering a delicious, rich petit verdot for $28) are gaining increasing attention and credibility, while others struggle to compete.

“Is it the greatest wine in the world?” Fletcher asks. “No-o-o. But is it good to support Colorado? Yes.”

The greatest wines in the world come from the greatest places in the world, he says, namely France. If you understand malbec and pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and syrah, if you know about chardonnay and pinot gris – every one an original French varietal – you’ll understand their counterparts grown in warmer climates such as Australia or colder ones such as Chile.

But for Fletcher and other wine aficionados, finding your favorite isn’t what wine drinking should be about. That’s too limiting. It ought to be about tasting good wines of all different types.

“People ask me what’s the best?” said Eric Allen, co-owner of Wine Merchant on Main Avenue, “and I say, ‘Well, what did I have for dinner last night?’ It’s the last wine I had that I really liked.”

Wine has come a long way from the days of our parents, when Cold Duck or Lancers were more likely to be on the dinner table than a good pinot noir or barolo. But today you can swan around town and try out the tastiest of high-end roses, the latest tempranillo and the weightiest of cabernets, by the glass or the bottle.

Or you can take Allen’s advice and go out on a limb – why not try the 2011 riesling from new winery Foxfire Farms, La Plata County’s only winemaker? It’s fresh, light and not at all sweet, perfect for a summer meal outdoors and affordable at $16 a bottle.

Owner Richard Parry is a third-generation sheep and cattle farmer who likes wine. He came home from traveling eight years ago and decided to plant merlot, pinot noir and riesling grapes. Only the riesling survived. He’s undeterred, planting anew with French-American hybrids and making wines from California and Oregon grapes.

If it isn’t easy growing grapes in the Four Corners, it’s equally hard breaking into the business, getting restaurants to feature your wines on their menus and liquor stores to carry it. But Parry is looking at the long haul, noting that European wineries are often hundreds of years old.

“If we could create something that meaningful,” he said, his voice tapering off amid the din of the grand tasting tent, “well, that’s what I’m looking to do.”

Who knew wine could be meaningful? If you just want to have fun, the good-time girl will never let you down.

phasterok@durangoherald.com

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